With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Cabinet Secretary’s report on the Indian Operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib, also called the Golden Temple, in Amritsar in June 1984.
The House will recall that on 13th January concerns were raised regarding two documents released to the public in the National Archives.
The documents relate to the painful events that followed the occupation of the Temple site by Sikh dissidents in December 1983, which led to a six-month standoff with the Indian authorities.
In June 1984 a three-day military operation by Indian forces known as ‘Operation Blue Star’ took place. Official Indian government figures estimate that 575 people died. Other reports suggest as many as 3,000 people were killed, including pilgrims caught in the cross-fire.
This loss of life was an utter tragedy. Understandably, members of the Sikh community around the world still feel the pain and suffering caused by these events.
Given this, we fully understand the concerns raised by the two documents. They indicated that in February 1984, in the early stages of the crisis, the-then British government sent a military officer to give advice to the Indian government about their contingency planning.
Many in this House and the whole country rightly wished to know what connection, if any, there had been between this giving of advice and the tragic events at Amritsar over three months later.
Within hours of the documents coming to light, the Prime Minister instructed the Cabinet Secretary to carry out an urgent investigation in four critical areas: why advice was provided to the Indian authorities, what the nature of that advice was, what impact it had on Operation Blue Star, and whether Parliament was misled.
The Cabinet Secretary was not asked to investigate Operation Blue Star itself, or the actions of the Indian government, or other events relating to the Sikh community in India.
While the Cabinet Secretary has investigated these specific matters, I can make clear that during his investigation no circumstantial evidence has been offered, or has surfaced, of UK involvement in any subsequent military operations in the Punjab.
This investigation has been rigorous and thorough.
The Cabinet Secretary and officials have met Sikh organisations to ensure that their concerns informed the investigation.
They have spoken to individuals associated with the two documents, although some officials are now deceased.
They have examined Hansard records from 1984 to the present day.
And they have carried out an extensive and thorough search of the files held by all relevant Departments and Agencies from December 1983 to June1984.
Their search through some 200 files and over 23,000 documents found a very limited number of documents relating to Operation Blue Star.
The Report notes that some military files covering various operations were destroyed in November 2009, as part of a routine process undertaken by the MOD at the 25 year review point. This included one file on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their contingency plans for Sri Harmandir Sahib. However, copies of at least some of the documents in the destroyed files were also in other departmental files; and taken together these files provide a consistent picture of what happened.
The Cabinet Secretary’s investigation is now complete. Copies of the report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and it is now being published on the government website.
The report includes the publication of the relevant sections of five extra documents that shed light on this period, but which would not normally have been published.
We have taken this step because the whole investigation has been based on a commitment to the maximum possible transparency. We want to be as open as possible with the British public, in so far as that does not undermine the principle upheld by successive British governments of not revealing any information relating to Intelligence or Special Forces.
The main findings of the Cabinet Secretary’s report are as follows:
First, on why the UK provided advice to the Indian government, the Cabinet Secretary has established that in early February 1984, the-then government received an urgent request to provide operational advice on Indian contingency plans for action to regain control of the temple complex. The British High Commission in India recommended that the government respond positively to the request for bilateral assistance, from a country with which we had an important relationship. This advice was accepted by the then-government.
Second, the Cabinet Secretary then examined the nature of the advice that was provided to India following that decision.
He has established that a single British military adviser travelled to India between 8th and 17th February 1984 to advise the Indian Intelligence Services and Special Group on contingency plans that they were drawing up for operations against armed dissidents in the temple complex, including ground reconnaissance of the site.
The adviser’s assessment made clear that a military operation should only be put into effect as a last resort, when all attempts at negotiation had failed. It recommended including in any operation an element of surprise and the use of helicopter-borne forces, in the interests of reducing casualties and bringing about a swift resolution.
This giving of military advice was not repeated. The documents show that the decision to provide advice was based on an explicit recommendation to Ministers that the government should not contemplate assistance beyond the visit of the military adviser, and this was reflected in his instructions. The Cabinet Secretary found no evidence in the files or from discussion with officials involved that any other form of UK military assistance – such as equipment or training – was given to the Indian authorities.
The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage in their planning.
Third, the report examines what actual impact UK advice had on the Indian Operation, which took place between 5th and 7th June 1984, over three months later.
The report establishes that during that time the planning by the Indian authorities had changed significantly.
The number of dissident forces was considerably larger by that time, and the fortifications inside the site were more extensive.
The documents also record information provided by the Indian Intelligence Co-ordinator that after the UK military adviser’s visit in February, the Indian Army took over lead responsibility for the operation and the main concept behind the operation changed.
The Cabinet Secretary’s report includes an analysis by current military staff of the extent to which the actual operation in June 1984 differed from the approach recommended in February by the UK military adviser. Operation Blue Star was a ground assault, without the element of surprise, and without a helicopter-borne element.
The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the UK military officer’s advice had limited impact on Operation Blue Star.
This is consistent with the public statement on 15th January this year by the Operation commander, Lieutenant-General Brar, who said that “no one helped us in our planning or in the execution of the planning”.
It is also consistent with an exchange of letters between Mrs Gandhi and Mrs Thatcher on 14th and 29th June 1984 discussing the operation, which made no reference to any UK assistance. Those parts of the letter relevant to Operation Blue Star are published with the Cabinet Secretary’s report today.
The Cabinet Secretary has also examined two other concerns raised in this House and by the Sikh community, namely that Parliament may have been misled, or that the decision to provide advice may have been linked to UK commercial interests.
The report finds no evidence to substantiate either of these allegations. The investigation did not find any evidence in the files or from officials of the provision of UK military advice being linked to potential defence or helicopter sales, or to any other policy or commercial issue. There is no evidence that the UK, at any level, attempted to use the fact that military advice had been given on request to advance any commercial objective. The only UK request of the Indian government, made following the visit, was for prior warning of any actual operation, so that UK authorities could make appropriate security arrangements in London. In the event, the UK received no warning from the Indian authorities before the operation was launched.
The Cabinet Secretary also concludes that there is no evidence of Parliament being misled. There is no record of a specific question to Ministers about practical British support for Operation Blue Star, and he concludes that the one instance of a Written Question to Ministers related to discussions with the Indian government on behalf of the Sikh Community after the Operation.
In sum, the Cabinet Secretary’s report finds that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage; that it had limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded at the Temple three months later; that there was no link between the provision of this advice and defence sales; and that there is no record of the government receiving advance notice of the operation.
Nonetheless, we are keen to discuss concerns raised by the Sikh community. The Minister responsible for relations with India, My Rt Hon Friend the Member for East Devon, will discuss these with Sikh organisations when he meets them later today. This reflects the strong, positive relationship the government has with the British Sikh community which plays such a positive role in so many areas of our national life.
We are also determined to look at the wider issues raised by these events about the management and release of information held by government. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the 30 year rule has been superseded by a 20 year rule, so that from 2022 all annual releases will be after 20 years. However, it is not clear at the moment that this change is being approached in a uniform fashion by all departments. The Prime Minister has therefore decided to commission a review to establish the position across government on the annual release of papers and the ability and readiness of departments to meet the requirements of moving from a 30 to 20 year rule, including the processes for withholding information. This review will be carried out by the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards, Sir Alex Allan.
Nothing can undo, Mr Speaker, the loss of life and the suffering caused by the tragic events at Sri Harmandir Sahib. It is quite right that the concerns that were raised about UK involvement have been investigated. It is a strength of our democracy that we are always prepared to take an unflinching look at the past.
But I hope this investigation and the open manner in which it has been conducted will provide reassurance to the Sikh community, to this House, and to the public, and in that spirit I present it to the House.
Read the report by the Cabinet Secretary into allegations of UK involvement in the Indian operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar in 1984.
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